When I ask Padre Juancho, a Maryknoll priest in Bolivia, if there had been a particular priest who inspired his vocation, he says, “No. It was a horse.”
He launches into a story. Long before South Americans christened him Juancho, he was a kid named Kenny Moody from Newark, New Jersey. When he was 7, he spent some time on a farm, where he met and fell in love with a horse. He was an only child of older parents, and his mother believed, as many Irish mothers did at the time—this was the 1950s—that hugging a son could turn him gay. She kept a vigilant distance from him, but the horse was friendly and affectionate. Years later, when Kenny Moody saw the cover of a Maryknoll magazine where a priest rode a horse, it was as if he were looking at himself, he says.
I’m a cradle Catholic who tries to hold on to her religion despite its rigidity. Despite its bigoted stance regarding the LGBTQ community and their human rights. Despite being a mother of queer kids. Somehow I hang on. The religion is in my bones, is my home, is my ancestry. Even as I often feel kicked out, I can’t kick it out of my blood. My father’s cousin was a priest who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. My parents both taught in Catholic schools, and I attended them for 12 years. None of my friends from those years are practicing Catholics, and while my practice is erratic, they don’t understand why I hang on as I do.
But I am sad (and often angry) that I can’t find a church at home in the United States where priests speak out like Padre Juancho does here. I am exuberant and shocked when he tells me he wants to start a 12-step program for homophobia. He talks about how necessary it is, how we have to start somewhere. I can’t wait to tell my kids—one has worked tirelessly on behalf of prisoners, the other created an excellent antiracism program in Minnesota. Neither of them identify as Catholic. Catholicism, in their generation, has become synonymous with homophobia and misogyny. They’ve heard my speeches about Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. They’ve heard me speak of the soulful vulnerability and love of Henri Nouwen. But I’ve rarely been able to tell them about knowing a priest whose values might align with theirs, a priest who imagines Jesus as someone who would object to the exclusion of anyone.
Padre Juancho is an old friend of Roy Bourgeois, the Maryknoll priest who was excommunicated for supporting women’s ordination. He and Bourgeois got arrested together, years ago, at one of the annual School of Americas protests in Georgia.
We head out of the language institute in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in the black Jeep Padre Juancho shares with other priests so he can take me to his barrio, a place in the mountains that sidles up against a massive garbage dump. This is where he says he’s planning to spend the last years of his life. He has learned about the Indigenous religion, the worship of Pachamama, and respects it: He incorporates it as he shares the gospel. He’s dedicated his whole life to working with and for poor people, and these are the poorest of the poor in Bolivia. “I told God I’d give her 15 years in this place, but she had to take me when that time was up,” he says. “Or before, hopefully. I’m not tough enough to be really old.” He blesses himself and smiles, and I argue that he’s plenty tough. Neither of us know that he’ll be transferred in a few years to the borderland of Mexico and Texas to serve immigrants, a job he’ll also embrace wholeheartedly.
The Cochabamba day is bright, the city’s shadow-dappled mountains, 14,000 feet high, breathe down upon us. He stops the Jeep. “Wait here. Forgot my teeth.” He leans on the wheel, turns, and smiles at me for a moment.
He’s out of the car, and I watch him walk toward the building. His walk has an old man hitch. He needs a knee replacement and has sleep apnea. “Last good sleep I had was back in ’72,” he says.
I’m wondering what it takes to live 140 yards from a toxic dump and be present to desperately poor people when you have these health issues. Like those he serves, he has no electricity, plumbing, or water. And before this, how did he minister to the poor of Venezuela without a good night’s sleep? How did he work with Salvadoran refugees in Texas while caring for a dying father, all without decent sleep? When my insomnia hits, I find it challenging enough to go to the grocery store.
Padre Juancho would say it’s all about his radical dependency on God. With all my heart, I’m trying to soak up this faith. This is the dependency I need, crave, and have never quite had. I would like to be strong enough to live a life like Juancho’s, but I’m not—and I’ve learned that on this trip, after just six weeks in an orphanage where children bang their heads on the walls and floor, severely neglected. I could not imagine living my whole life here, but I badly want to be a person who could.
“Can’t find my teeth.” Padre Juancho shrugs, back in the car. “Must be out at the barrio. Someday you’ll be old and looking for your teeth,” he assures me and smiles.
“If I’m lucky,” I say.
We’re off. The traffic is wild, with old taxis and colorful, fading buses pressing in against each other, spewing dark plumes of exhaust into sunlight. Padre Juancho drives deftly around massive potholes and narrowly avoids several collisions. We pass by open-air markets where thousands of people shop for food.
“So last night,” he says, “I was up at 3 a.m. on my knees, asking God why I couldn’t have a partner, someone to call my own.”
I don’t know what to say. I listen, moved by the intimacy of the confession.
“God said I do have a partner, and the partner is God. God makes me weep with joy almost every morning. I don’t think a wife could do that, do you?” He peers out at the sky.
“Maybe for a few months, or even a few years. But probably not for much longer than that,” I say.
He laughs a little. We get out of the Jeep. Several children come down the dusty road to meet us. The cloudless sky is blue and close, but not as close as the hovering dump.
Padre Juancho, with your bad knee, wild faith, missing teeth, endless service, and 3 a.m. lonely doubts where it all feels impossible, I’ll carry you with me and remember that this too is Catholicism.
Image: iStock.com/zeynep bog ˘oçlu